Shanaya Jaiswal (name changed on request) was ecstatic. The 23-year-old content strategist had just scored an interview for a job with a major Mumbai-based advertising agency, and was excited to even be considered. The male company executive who was in charge of hiring went to her Instagram profile, which was linked in her resume, and began liking random posts.
“I found myself more awkward than I would’ve liked to be during the video interview because I didn’t feel at ease to truly be myself,” Jaiswal told Re:Set. “It even pushed me to wear a knit sweater in the middle of a 30 degree summer just so I could feel covered up and like I wasn’t sending any kind of wrong message.”
“During the interview, the man kept turning off his video while I was talking which I also found creepy and unnecessary,” she added.
Usually upbeat, Jaiswal felt she was uncomfortable during the video call, after which she didn’t get a call back. Before the process began, she was specifically told there would be another round of interviews.
“This was my first brush with feeling unsettled in a work environment,” Jaiswal said. She has only worked under female bosses previously. “It felt like my gender played a bigger role than it should’ve and it’s made me anxious about what to expect in the future about working under a male boss.”
Working via video calls is not easy, and according to recent research, it can be extremely stressful and result in the deterioration of one’s mental health. ‘Zoom anxiety’ is real. For women though, as Jaiswal found out, this adds another layer of worries at work.
Last month, for example, a controversy erupted in India, when leaked messages from an Indian start-up showed employees taking a screenshot of an interviewee’s face and discussing it on the company’s internal communications channel. In other on call behaviour, a television analyst for CNN was suspended for allegedly masturbating during a work video call. Incidents of harassment on general video calls have been rampant since they’ve became an integral part of daily life.
For San Francisco-based communications consultant Rachel (name change on request), the dreaded video call happens everyday. Since her workplace went remote in March, she has always blurred the wall behind her desk from where she logs on.
“Everyone else would have walls with things on them and being a junior employee, mine had holes,” Rachel told Re:Set. She sometimes got comments asking about the emptiness of her wall. “I didn’t want people to know where I live.”
Work from home has, according to experts, made existing economic and power disparities even worse. In addition to this added pressure, the act of letting people see us in our personal and intimate spaces has obscured the distinction between professional and personal lives.
The pressure is real
Since time immemorial, women have faced pressure to ‘look good’, which studies have put a dent in their confidence. This hasn’t changed during the pandemic, with women still expected to wear make-up and have eyebrows on fleek during video calls.
Rachel used to “dress up” in the first few weeks of going remote, now she just does it on client calls. “You have to perform professionalism, you know? Unlike a man, I just can’t sit there in a ganji.”
On calls with clients, men often make suggestive remarks, even with the camera turned off. Once during an audio call, a 50-year-old man commented, “You sound amazing. I’d like to take you out.” Another time, a translator kept asking her to speak ‘clearly,’ as she was the only Indian person on the call. At the end of it, he sent her a message saying, “You have a very beautiful voice, you don’t have to change. Wink.”
“Being in the service industry, it’s hard to draw the lines between anyway creepy and normal behaviour, but on a remote call, it’s even harder to gauge creepiness,” Rachel explained. “It just feels icky.”
Calls with only-female teams are much easier, even when cameras are left on. A writer told Re:Set on the condition of anonymity that their boss sometimes breastfeeds on their calls.
With male colleagues, the lack of comfort extends beyond the visual. Without the help of body language cues or tone, Rachel has found providing input while senior male colleagues are speaking during remote calls even more difficult than usual.
When sitting in communities, the concept of “gaze awareness” takes over. Following the speaker’s ‘gaze’ in a discussion can help explain where the speaker is focused at during a conversation, who they are speaking with, and who they might turn to next. In a video call, all of this physical context is lost. This lack of social cues also causes misunderstandings, which research says makes employees react more negatively to feedback.
“Even though the workplace has moved remote, power dynamics haven’t,” Rachel said. “Without being in the room, you don’t know how your input would be perceived, so I’ve just spoken less and less.”
With the lines between work and home now blurred women are having to do more household chores than ever before due to the pandemic and lockdowns. Rachel witnessed this first hand with her female colleagues. When female colleagues are seen on calls with children, they get derided, people get irritated with them trying to handle a child.
“It’s taken as unprofessional,” she said. “That is pressure is borne much more by female colleagues, and being younger, I feel even worse at my inability to support them. Men, well they have uninterrupted Zoom sessions.”